Sizing Up Turn Season
There are many different ideas and strategies regarding how to handle student housing turns. But even the best plans can hit a few snags. It's how you and your staff respond to those bumps in the road that can make all the difference between a smooth turn season and a not-so-smooth one. One expert in this area is Heather Sizemore, National Director of Residence Life for Campus Apartments, who recently sat down with us to discuss turn season.
What follows is our chat:
NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: How has turn season changed in recent years?
HEATHER SIZEMORE: The process seems to get earlier and earlier as far as planning and being proactive goes. We're tackling turns almost on a year-round process now instead of 30 to 60 days prior to turns actually starting. The focus has shifted from a one-time-of-year thing to "This always has to be on our minds constantly!" This way, when July and August roll around, it runs smoother because of all the preparations we've done year round for it.
NAA: How does your company specifically plan and prepare for turn season?
HS: The most important thing is the attention we pay to resident relations. The more positive impact you can have on your renewals, the less beds you have to turn for the next year. The second thing is quarterly inspections. It's important that we get into those units shortly after the residents move in, assess any damages, assess charges for damages early on, and really set the tone for the rest of the year. Your residents should know what your expectations are for how they are going to treat their units, that they're going to keep them in good condition, and that there will be consequences for not doing so. Generally, if you can get in around October after they have been in their apartments for a couple of months, find out what any issues are, get them corrected, then they tend to treat their apartments a little kinder and gentler throughout the rest of the year.
NAA: Do the challenges vary depending on the market or the size or caliber of the university nearby?
HS: Sure! All of those factors definitely play into the different conditions. Certainly, there are challenges in both small markets and large markets.
HS: The first that comes to mind is your choice of vendors. In some of the smaller markets, you might not have that many companies that have the manpower to be able to complete a turn on a good housing property. There can be a lot of beds and a lot of space that comes available in a short amount of time. The same can be true in the larger markets. Generally, there are going to be more vendors in those. But there is also more student housing product. So, you're having to work against your competitors, trying to get your best vendors and your best pricing. Even a larger company that is experienced with student housing turns, they still have limited capacity. They're not going to be able to turn 7,000 or 8,000 beds across several different communities.
NAA: Do you have an anecdote of a turn season or a related event that didn't go so well, but you learned from it?
HS: It was my first or second turn ever. I was on site. The property was a purpose-built community with 1,224 beds. I still don't know where the issue really came from, but there was a big key problem. Basically, every single resident who moved in and went to their apartment, their key didn't work! We messed up somewhere along the line. We put the keys in the packets, but we might have got one off in the very beginning and it threw the rest of the packets off. Who's to say what happened? Suffice it to say, when your residents come to move in and the keys don't work, it makes for a REALLY challenging day!
NAA: How did you rectify the situation?
HS: Diligently and one by one. We recognized early that there was a problem. So, we proactively began re-cutting keys. If somebody had already come to move in, we got them accommodated and corrected as quickly as possible. But we also attempted to correct the problem as fast as possible so that people who moved in later in the day, we had already made the correction before they moved in.
NAA: You recently led an "unsession" at the 2014 NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition. For those reading this who were not in attendance, what were some new ideas that were bandied about? What was the takeaway from that event?
HS: There were a lot of smaller companies and independent rental housing owners there who learned from some of the more seasoned and experienced student housing providers. The big takeaway and overall message was the importance of planning. Planning with your vendors, your residents, and really having a plan that you stick to and having a back-up plan if you get behind schedule. How are you going to catch up? I think you even need a back-up for your back-up, because the time frame in our business is fixed.
NAA: How do you see turn season evolving in the years to come?
HS: I think that technology is going to be the biggest factor, for sure. We have so many companies, including ourselves, going to online leasing. I think we'll see the administrative process become much more streamlined. I think that our inspections are going to become more efficient. Whatever personal device we're using, the information will go directly into our property management software system. That's going to create a serious savings on time and administrative labor to enter that into a separate system. I think that our ordering processes will be included in that. With regards to students, I think eventually once we get the management side down on the technology front, we'll be able to translate that over on the students' side. If there is a scuff on their wall that they want to document at move-in, it's all going to be interconnected together to the system. Technology is going to make the whole process just a bit smoother down the road.
NAA: And it helps that you have a client base that is very tech-savvy, yes?
HS: It doesn't hurt! They adapt very quickly to new systems. They might be moving into one of our apartment communities for the first time and have never used the digital form that we give them, but they don't have a problem adapting and filling it out. They actually much prefer that over a pen and paper.
By Teddy Durgin